Musings on brain workings 

This time last year, I had a few things fall into place in my head. I had worked out what felt like a way to think about my anxiety that helped me understand the underlying issue causing the problem. This will be a bit of a ramble, but for people who understand a little bit about computing, it give an interesting way to look at social anxiety. At least as I experience it.

I guess that’s the place to start, then. My form of social anxiety seems to be quite specific. The worst situation for me is a loud busy environment, especially if there’s an expectation of social interaction. My sensation in these situations is one of being overwhelmed. Like my brain is running at a million miles an hour, and yet glacially slow at the same time. I can also have issues in one-on-one interactions, but it’s less overwhelming and with the right type of people not an issue at all.

My realisation (which may well not be new, but I’ve not heard it described like this before, and to be quite honest, can’t be bothered to Google properly to find out. Don’t even know where I would start on that, even) is based on thinking of the brain as a computing device, combined with my understanding of what consciousness is/how it works. I may well have fundamentally misunderstood things, I’m no expert, just had a subscription to the New Scientist for 5 years or so, and a general interest in the area. I welcome any intelligent feedback!


To be a social creature, humans have to understand how other people think, to predict what they will do. This is a big part of what makes us different to most other animals. We are not only self-aware, but understand that other people have their own minds, which we need to understand at some level to successfully interact with them. In effect we run simulations of other people, based on previous experience. The better we know them the more accurate the simulation can be: the more you can test your theory of how someone ‘works’, the more likely you are to predict their reactions to given events.

In an environment with multiple people, you need to simulate each person, and if you don’t know them it will necessarily have to be a ‘default template’. This is where the computing parallel is useful (for me, at least). It’s like AI in computer games – it’s got better over the years as the available processing power has increased. Even now AI is limited by processing power – it is vastly superior, but to take account of all the variables involved takes huge amounts of power. So while the human brain is an impressively powerful parallel processor, there are still limits. Shortcuts need to be made, so having a basic ‘other people in general’ template makes sense. This is where stereotypes come in as well – if you can reduce the number of variables your processor is coping with by being able to predict a response, that’s super useful. So your brain is programmed to take shortcuts where it can – it’s immensely beneficial. 

Of course, the other side of using a reduced model for strangers is that in theory you care much less about their reactions – so inaccuracies in your predictions of them aren’t such a big deal. With friends, family and colleagues you don’t want to get it wrong, though. So the importance of accurate models is much higher, meaning that while the processing power required is less due to the accuracy the importance placed on the result is much greater.

How does all this have anything to do with anxiety? 

My thought is that the difference in an anxious mind is that an anxious brain puts too high importance on other people’s reactions – trying desperately to create perfect models for everybody in a given situation, and panicking because the models aren’t good enough. So an anxious brain is completely flat out trying to do *ALL THE THINGS* but feels like it’s super slow. Just like when your computer hangs cause it’s doing too much. 

I don’t know if this way of looking at it will help anyone else, but it’s definitely helped me. I think about things like I do with the crappy sub-£200 laptop I’m typing this on. It can barely cope with what I want it to do, but as long as I treat it with care it does pretty well. Wait for it to boot up fully before opening any programmes. Only open one programme at a time. Don’t open too many tabs. Be nice. 

This translates into the real world – Stop trying to do all the things, my processor is crippled. Don’t expect to make all the friends at Sunday Assembly. Only able to manage being a useful member of the organising team without any socialising? That’s fine – I do a lot of stuff, and am trying to keep a lot of bits balanced in my mind, and my processors crippled, remember?

Self care, basically. But with an understanding of why (or an explanation, at least) it has made it much easier for me to work around and stick to it. Self care for the purpose of caring for myself isn’t a good enough motivator. Caring for myself because it’ll make life easier? That I can get behind! I understand what I need to do and why, and that doing it will make my brain run better for the next day or so. 

There we go. Another brain dump. More purpose behind this one, which has hopefully helped it be a better read.

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